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by William Knox

Oh why should the spirit of mortal be proud!
Like a fast flitting meteor, a fast-flying cloud,
A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave—
He passeth from life to his rest in the grave.

The leaves of the oak and the willow shall fade,
Be scattered around, and together be laid;
And the young and the old, and the low and the high,
Shall moulder to dust, and together shall lie.

The infant a mother attended and loved,
The mother that infant's affection that proved,
The husband that mother and infant that blest,
Each—all are away to their dwellings of rest.

The maid on whose cheek, on whose brow, in whose eye,
Shone beauty and pleasure,—her triumphs are by:
And the memory of those who loved her and praised,
Are alike from the minds of the living erased.

The hand of the king that the sceptre hath borne,
The brow of the priest that the mitre hath worn,
The eye of the sage, and the heart of the brave,
Are hidden and lost in the depths of the grave.

The peasant whose lot was to sow and to reap,
The herdsman who climbed with his goats up the steep,
The beggar that wandered in search of his bread,
Have faded away like the grass that we tread.

The saint that enjoyed the communion of Heaven,
The sinner that dared to remain unforgiven,
The wise and the foolish, the guilty and just,
Have quietly mingled their bones in the dust.

So the multitude goes—like the flower or the weed
That withers away to let others succeed;
So the multitude comes—even those we behold,
To repeat every tale that has often been told.

For we are the same things that our fathers have been,
We see the same sights our fathers have seen,
We drink the same stream, we view the same sun,
And we run the same course that our fathers have run.

The thoughts we are thinking our fathers would think,
From the death we are shrinking from they too would shrink,
To the life we are clinging to they too would cling—
But it speeds from the earth like a bird on the wing.

They loved—but their story we cannot unfold;
They scorned—but the heart of the haughty is cold;
They grieved—but no wail from their slumbers may come;
They joyed—but the voice of their gladness is dumb.

They died—ay, they died! and we, things that are now,
Who walk on the turf that lies over their brow,
Who make in their dwellings a transient abode,
Meet the things that they met on their pilgrimage road.

Yea, hope and despondence, and pleasure and pain,
Are mingled together in sunshine and rain;
And the smile and the tear, the song and the dirge,
Still follow each other like surge upon surge.

'Tis the twink of an eye, 'tis the draught of a breath,
From the blossom of health to the paleness of death,
From the gilded saloon to the bier and the shroud—
O why should the spirit of mortal be proud!

Poem Backstory

The poem Mortality was authored by William Knox. William died of a stroke on November 12, 1825 at the age of 36, thus he did not live to see the full effect his poetry would have. As it happened, his poem Mortality would be introduced to Abraham Lincoln in the 1830s when Lincoln was a young man and made a profound impression on him.

Lincoln committed Mortality to memory and would often recite it. The poem would remain a favorite of his for the rest of his life. He once remarked, "I would give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is."

It wasn't until near the end of his life, however, that Lincoln would learn who the author was. Painter F. B. Carpenter wrote that while painting his famous work First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln at the White House, Lincoln said to him, "There is a poem, which has been a great favorite with me for years, which was first shown to me when a young man, by a friend, and which I afterwards saw and cut from a newspaper, and learned by heart. I would, give a great deal to know who wrote it, but I have never been able to ascertain." The poem has remained closely associated with Lincoln ever since.

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